What can you do when the person you love, doesn’t love themselves? It can be quite a challenge, but here are some tips to help you provide the words of comfort and support they need
If you’ve ever looked in the mirror and disliked the person looking back at you, then you’ve experienced low self-esteem. It isn’t necessarily related to your physical self — although having poor body image can cause negative thoughts — but it’s intrinsically linked to how you value yourself as a person.
People with self-esteem issues often neglect to take care of themselves. They may refuse to go shopping for new clothes, or fail to maintain good personal hygiene. They could be unknowingly sabotaging relationships, or other aspects of their life, because they feel undeserving of happiness.
Being in a relationship with someone who has low self-esteem can be tough. Here are some suggestions on how to talk to them, to try to support them:
1. Remain autonomous
First of all, accept that you are not there to ‘fix’ your partner. Their self-esteem has to come from doing things that make them happy. Relying on an external source for that happiness means that the self-esteem created is very fragile, and that doesn’t really solve the problem. Independent self-esteem is strong, and won’t crumble under pressure.
Encourage your partner to take care of themselves by doing the things that truly make them happy
2. Avoid flippant compliments
According to trainee counselling psychologist Sanjivan Parhar, there are two versions of self-esteem. There is an external version, that may appear happy and confident. Then there’s the internal, more authentic version. Compliments often feed the external version but fail to address deeper concerns.
For example, if your partner says they want to lose weight, your gut reaction might be to compliment their appearance, but this can feel dismissive.
“Ask your partner what it is that they’re unhappy with at this moment,” says Sanjivan. “Validate these negative feelings and let them feel heard. Then you can move on to offer a positive opinion about how they look.”
Try not to say things like ‘You’re fine the way you are’, or ‘Don’t worry about it’, as this doesn’t give them space to express how they feel.
3. Help them to see a new perspective
Most of us live with an internal dialogue. You may not even notice it, but it can form the basis about how you feel about yourself. For example, someone who struggles to be good at football might internalise the idea that they are terrible at all sports – so much so that they begin to believe it. The reality of the situation might be that they are still learning, recovering from a physical injury, or maybe just better suited to another sport entirely.
It’s very easy to take what your inner critic says as fact instead of opinion. What’s helpful in this situation is to acknowledge another perspective. For example, if you have an inner voice saying that you’re unattractive, acknowledge this, but then look at yourself from an outsider’s perspective. What would a friend say?
Encourage your partner to stop comparing themselves to others (whether it’s in real life or on social media) as this can reinforce the negative voice that says they’re not good enough.
4. Encourage practising self-love
It can be heartbreaking to be deeply in love with someone who you know to be a wonderful person, only to watch them constantly hate themselves. Try to encourage your partner to take care of themselves by doing the things that truly make them happy. It could be going out for a meal, meeting up with friends, or picking up a hobby that has fallen by the wayside. Sanjivan says that true self-love emanates from “developing your own authentic, true self, outside of a relationship, friends, or family”.
5. Don’t walk on eggshells
It can be tempting to filter what you say, to ensure you never offend a sensitive partner. While you don’t want to antagonise them, avoiding certain issues could do more harm than good.
Finding someone who you can share your vulnerability with is something to strive for, not avoid
People with low self-esteem are hyper-vigilant to anything that will confirm the negative thoughts they’re already having, so censoring yourself can lead to tension when difficult topics arise.
“Instead of getting defensive or disengaging, try to explore what it is you’ve said that caused upset,” suggests Sanjivan. “Give them a chance to explain the meaning they have inferred. Then you can explain what you actually meant.”
Instead of avoiding tricky conversations, this actually encourages a more open line of communication, and should help them to find a new perspective.
“It’s a way of facilitating an environment where people are comfortable in relationships to show their vulnerability. Finding someone who you can share your vulnerability with is something to strive for, not avoid,” says Sanjivan.